From Podunk to Paradise – A Century of Re-Creation at Bear Brook State Park

On May 27th, 1914 a train passing along the Suncook River near Bear Brook in Allenstown NH threw off some sparks which soon caught the nearby woods on fire.  Within 4 days time, these once grand forests, forests claimed to have supplied the masts for the USS Constitution, were being consumed by fire.  When it was finally extinguished, the fires had devastated an area over 6 miles long and left what was to eventually become Bear Brook State Park a smoldering, charred wasteland.

The land had never been much good to begin with, apart from the timber.  When lots were laid out in the late 1700’s the quality of the parcels were judged on a 7-grade scale: from very bad to middling bad, then bad, good, middling good, very good, and finally exceeding good.  Nearly every lot that would eventually find its way into the future park ranged from middling good down to very bad.  Few farms had ever been established there and even fewer were still in existence at the time of the fire.  Now even the lumbermen found little of value here.

Unlike today, no effort was made to restore the landscape.  In fact, the loss of the forest cover led to significant problems with erosion, with the main road becoming almost impassable at times.  The only silver lining, as reported by old-timers, was that without the customary obstructions, the views from every height of land were now panoramic.

The main road in the area is called Podunk Road and I’ve often wondered about this name.  In general, local roads in the 19th century weren’t given names.  It was only the advent of the automobile that required the formal naming of what everyone previously knew as “the road to Dame Philbrick’s place” to Philbrick Road or some other appellation.  So why Podunk Road?  Since there was neither family nor destination of that name, I hazard a guess that it was taken from the fictitious town of Podunk popularized in the mid-1800’s as a term for an out-of-the-way backwater, a No-Wheres-Ville.  In the late 1800’s the area became known as South Podunk, and gained notoriety for the rather intense feuding and squabbling between the families still resident there.  The newspapers reported numerous assaults, and some residents even had their homes and barns torched and their cattle poisoned.  Podunk indeed!  So now the forest fire had turned a No-Wheres-Ville into a No-Man’s-Land.

Moving forward another 16 years, just as the land is beginning to recover, Allenstown and the entire country, indeed the entire world, suffered another calamity.  The Great Depression threw millions out of work, and by 1932 New Hampshire’s unemployment rate reached 22%, with a further 33% underemployed.  Things had hit rock bottom and there wasn’t a rockier bottom than this piece of Podunk!

Enter the knight in shining armor, in the form of FDR’s New Deal.  Specifically the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was looking for worthy projects with which to put young men back to work.  New Hampshire’s governor John G. Winant proposed “…Bear Brook Reservation, which is a wild land area of many thousands of acres at present inaccessible but close to through routes of travel and near an industrial and rural population of more than 100,000 people.”  He adds, “Although lacking in scenic features, the area contains many possibilities for all kinds of recreational development…”  The idea took hold, and in 1935, 21 years after the devastating fire, the “Sub-marginal Land Program, Bear Brook Recreational Project New Hampshire R-1” was created.  At special town meetings in Allenstown and neighboring Deerfield, Candia, and Hooksett, all voted, I presume enthusiastically, that the land be purchased and the project proceed.  The planning report stated “This area is unquestionable sub marginal in character including a region of poverty farms, which are entirely unsuited for agricultural purposes.  The conversion of this land into more proper uses will improve the economic and social status of the people in the vicinity.”  So Bear Brook was to be an experiment in environmental rehabilitation as well as social engineering.

So plans were made, men were enrolled, and soon the CCC got to work; dredging and damming lakes, laying stone, and mapping out trails.  Camps were laid out, including the CCC camp, the Day Use Area (with the beach and bathhouse), and the Bear Hill Pond and Spruce Pond Camps.  Bear Hill Pond, for example, was designed to be a vacation center for youth groups like the Boy Scouts and YMCA, and had cabins with large stone fireplaces, a dining hall, lodge, and several recreation halls.  Its namesake pond was first drained, with sand then trucked in to create a beach, and at last the dam was raised to increase the water level.  A network of trails, most still in use, was laid out and countless hours were spent improving the trails for both winter and summer use.  Picnic grounds and camping areas were designed for tourists.

1940 dedication ceremony of the Penny Pine forest.  See the pines in the foreground?  Photo courtesy NH Parks & Recreation.

1940 dedication ceremony of the Penny Pine forest in Bear Brook Reservation.  Note the pines in the foreground.  Photo courtesy NH Parks & Recreation.

One interesting project during this time was the planting of 30,000 red pine seedlings by the DAR in 1940.  This was part of a “Penny Pine” reforestation program where a penny donation would buy a seedling and such forests were to be planted in every state in the lower 48.  Unfortunately now, 75 years later, these trees are suffering from red pine scale, an invasive wiping out many of the red pine stands of New England.  As a result, most of the “Jubilee Penny Pine Forest” is being “harvested” (read logged) and white pines are being planted to replace them.  More info available here.  In a few years, this remnant of the CCC’s presence will be gone.

Bear Brook opened to the public on July 19th, 1941, just five months before the attack at Pearl Harbor plunged the country into war.  The entire property was transferred to the State of New Hampshire in April 1943.  With rationing and other restrictions, civilian use of the park was limited during the war, although the camps were used as R&R camps for both Army and Navy soldiers on leave.

When the property was transferred to the state, the conditions stated the state “shall use this property exclusively for public park, recreational, and conservation purposes, and the further expressed condition that the United States of America assumes no obligation for the maintenance or operation of the said property…”.  Over the next decades, New Hampshire’s long-established policy that the park system be self-sustaining would lead to a slow but steady deterioration of some of the facilities in the park, especially those that saw less use.  Although there have been periodic infusions of money and rehabilitation, in my opinion the park has a curious mix of of old and new as it adapts to the changing tastes of the public.

In the 1950’s and 60’s the park had a ski slope and tow, ice skating with performances, and state-owned stables for horseback riding.  In the 1960’s and 70’s snowmobiling and cross-country skiing were encouraged.  The 1990’s brought the establishment of the Bear Brook Museum Complex, featuring the CCC museum and snowmobile museum, while the last decade has seen more development encouraging mountain biking.  On the other hand, the Bear Hill Pond Camp and some of the more remote trails have deteriorated and are just now starting to get more attention.

Thanks to Park Manager Greg Preville, the park has recently been getting a welcome dose of new energy.  This year, Bear Brook Park even got its first Interpretive Ranger to lead educational and recreational programs for children and adults alike.  But for now the park remains a curious mix of old and new.

Brand new trail markers circa 2014

Brand new trail markers circa 2014

X-country ski trail signs circa 1970's

X-country ski trail signs circa 1970’s

Brand new plastic trail markers co-exist with x-country trail markers from the 1970’s.

Renovated Bathhouse built in the 1930's

Renovated Bathhouse built in the 1930’s

Decomposed bridge on Lost Trail

Decomposed bridge on Lost Trail

The bathhouse is renovated while some remote trails revert to nature.

A well-loved bike trail.

A well-loved bike trail.

CCC museum circa 1933

CCC museum circa 1933

Many of the more remote trails are being restored thanks to the interest of mountain bikers.  Compare the following trail map with the newly updated one online.

Old park map circa ??

Old park map circa ??

So I guess this park will always remain in a state of flux; a constant act of re-creation.  Paradise?  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s all in the mind of the beholder.  In the CCC Museum was a sign that sums things up in a different sort of way…DSC04613_1This park will never really grow old, as long as “the State of New Hampshire shall use this property exclusively for public park, recreational, and conservation purposes.”  After a transformational century, it is about to embark on a new century of change.

Enjoy it!

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One response to “From Podunk to Paradise – A Century of Re-Creation at Bear Brook State Park

  1. Pingback: Hall Mountain – Bear Brook’s Back Door -or- This Place Must be Haunted | The Park Explorer·

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